Why 'Guitar Hero' is rockin' the game charts

Following record-breaking week of sales, exec behind Guitar Hero franchise credits success in part to our "primal" fantasy to be a rock star.

Last week, Activision announced that Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, the latest iteration of its hit video game franchise, had hauled in $115 million in its first week of sales.

That's not bad, especially when you consider that most movies don't make that much in their first week. The numbers do pale, however, in comparison to the $170 million Halo 3earned on its first day earlier this year.

For Activision, the instant success of Guitar Hero III is proof that its reported $100 million purchase of the game's publisher, RedOctane, has paid immediate dividends. And it puts a great deal of pressure on Harmonix, the original developer of Guitar Hero, to do well with its own new title, Rock Band.

But there is little doubt that fans of the original Guitar Hero are still fans of Harmonix. So there is equal pressure on Activision and its game developer Neversoft going forward to prove that they can sustain the franchise's leadership position.

In the wake of last week's sales record, Dusty Welch, RedOctane's head of publishing, talked to CNET News.com about the game, its heritage, its future, and the competitive landscape it now faces.

Q: Explain your role for me.
Welch: I'm responsible for the studio and development efforts behind the Guitar Hero franchise, as well as franchise development and the overall global brand management of the franchise. I'm a 10-year Activision veteran. I was brought on to RedOctane after Activision bought it in 2006.

Why do you think Guitar Hero works as a franchise?
Welch: First and foremost, it is uniquely tapped into a desire by consumers to fulfill their fantasy of becoming a rock star. You have popular-culture media and entertainment that has really ushered in this notion of music and fame such as American Idol, and I think that Guitar Hero being the first real product to bring music to the mass market in a very interactive entertainment way is capitalizing on this pop culture phenomenon of music attachment to lifestyle...I, too, as person sitting at home, can maybe one day aspire to and achieve success as I see on American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

Also, there is this unique marriage between the hardware and the software that really lets people have a deep experience with a game for the first time and it does so in a nonthreatening way. It is easy to pick up and challenging to master.

On the software side, it was about that promise that you deliver of being the musician--in this case the lead guitarist--or about really becoming a rock star, and I think that that fantasy is primal.

That sounds like what Nintendo says about the Wii. Do you see some parallels?
Welch: Without a doubt. You look at what Nintendo has been able to accomplish with its very unique controller interface and simple-to-pick-up gameplay and hardware, and what it is doing to create new audiences, and there is a very strong correlation between the success of pioneering interactive seamless hardware with an entertainment experience that both the Wii and Guitar Hero uniquely provide in consumer entertainment.

What is Activision able to bring to the table that wasn't possible for the franchise when it wasn't part of a large organization?
Welch: Really, it is the publishing know-how, the global might behind the organization, and the resources that an Activision can bring to bear as a major publisher. By that I mean that there are strengths and economies of scale that can be brought to bear on the sale side of the equation where we believe we have the class-leading global sales organization in the video game industry.

Also, there's the in-store presence behind our franchises and our launches, much like you would see with the major launch of a movie. I also think that there are development capabilities that a company like Activision can bring to bear.

How has Neversoft's influence made Guitar Hero different than when it was made by Harmonix?
Welch: Neversoft is obviously one of the premier developers in the industry with a 10-year track record of launching a game every single year and being in the top of the charts. Neversoft has always incorporated music in innovative ways into their games. I think we are really able to take the franchise to new levels by putting in new interesting gameplay elements like bass battles and online play. Neversoft has also brought a better and deeper sense of music sensibilities to the Guitar Hero franchise.

Your press release announced that Guitar Hero III had $115 million in first-week sales. I wonder what you think that figure, plus the $170 million first day sales for Halo 3, say about the game industry and games' place in entertainment right now?
Welch: First, this is the largest launch in the history of Activision. It has also helped to make Guitar Hero the No. 1 franchise in North America to date in calendar 2007. This franchise, which is only a few years old, has now taken the dominant spot in this once very niche rhythm-music-based category, which has blossomed into a casual entertainment proposition that consumers from all walks of life are playing, whether you are 12 to 40, you are a female or male gamer, if you are not even a gamer...I think the launch of Guitar Hero III is as big as any movie studio could ever hope for out of an opening weekend. In fact, Guitar Hero III opening sales were equivalent to the No. 13 all-time high box. This franchise has been able to come on to the market and really take its seat at the table as one of the premier entertainment properties in any industry now.

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